Kentucky Roll Call publisher and American hero Lowell Reese, who was exposed to Agent Orange decades ago while fighting communism as a battalion commander in the jungles of southeast Asia, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he boarded his final flight from earth last week.
Reese took the oath to defend this country and its Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” seriously.
There is no expiration date on that oath, which he understood isn’t just about defending America against some foreign enemy on some far-away battlefield.
Reese also served his commonwealth in the same spirit by firmly confronting domestic foes of his fellow Kentuckians – policies that threaten their future and politicians who profit at their expense, particularly as it relates to Kentucky’s public-pension crisis deemed by credible researchers as the nation’s worst.
He took particular aim at passage of House Bill 299 in 2005, which he labeled a “Pension Greed Act” because it allowed Frankfort’s politicians to calculate the size of their legislative retirement checks based on their full-time salaries in other government positions rather than their earnings as legislators.
“This practice allows part-time legislators to convert their normal pension to super-sized pensions,” Reese wrote in “Future Shock,” a series of Bluegrass Institute-published reports which offered analysis of and solutions to the state’s retirement-plan woes.
He chastised politicians from both parties for taking advantage of this policy and published estimates of their projected taxpayer-funded pension windfalls in order to show how many of those who voted for the Greed Act would personally benefit to the tune of hundreds of thousands – and even millions – of dollars.
It’s not coincidental that the first of his proposed solutions in that report was to make the commonwealth’s retirement plans transparent, allowing taxpayers – including retirees who depend on state-funded pensions for their livelihoods and economic security – access to the kind of information needed to hold Frankfort’s politicians accountable and achieve challenging reforms.
“His work has been a major catalyst toward at least the attempts at transparency we saw this year in Senate Bill 2,” Chris Tobe, author of “Kentucky Fried Pensions” and a former Kentucky Retirement Systems’ trustee, said.
SB 2 proposed shining the light on Kentucky pension plans’ contracts with hedge funds and private equity groups, requiring that all such agreements go through the bidding process.
“We have hundreds of secret no-bid contracts that the trustees, state Auditor and even legislative review committees cannot see,” Tobe said. “Only the KRS staff can see all of the information.”
Reese abhorred such secrecy, believing it to be a dangerous enemy to sound public policy and an insurmountable obstacle to solving a crisis that threatens the commonwealth’s economic security and vitality.
That’s why he was so deeply committed to making the legislative retirement system transparent. Senate Bill 45 – also introduced during this year’s General Assembly session – would have done.
Reese rightly believed that opening the curtains on politicians’ pensions was truly worth of – and eventually would receive – overwhelming bipartisan support and lead to making the entire system transparent.
Tobe notes that Reese also was one of the first to call attention to the fact that 30 percent of the 1,700 entities in the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System aren’t even public agencies.
“Lowell was a very important voice in the pension debate,” he said.
Neither of the aforementioned transparency bills, which passed the Senate unanimously, received a vote on the House floor during this year’s legislative session. Yet for the first time they did get through the State Government Committee, despite the uninformed opposition of its chairman, Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville.
The fact that the bills made it out of committee against House leaders’ entrenched hostility clearly indicates that though Reese’s voice may have been silenced by the enemy of death, it continues to ring strong throughout the commonwealth he loved and for which he fought.